The season’s biggest anomaly

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The biggest anomaly of this political season—and the most disappointing even to the most steadfast partisans of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—is turning out to be the administration coalition’s senatorial ticket, with the inclusion in it of Estrada loyalists Miriam Defensor-Santiago and John Osmena.

The Arroyo administration after all came to power in 2001 at the expense of Joseph Estrada, to whom John Osmena was especially close if we’re to judge from the fact that the former president once gave him a one-million-peso “balato” after a lucky night at the mahjong tables.

On the other hand, Defensor-Santiago was even closer to the former president, if we’re to judge by the zeal with which she defended him before, during and after the 2000-2001 impeachment trial. And who can forget that video of the former senator urging Estrada’s supporters massed at EDSA in the last week of April, 2001 to rush Malacanang to restore their hero to power, not to mention her outburst on the Senate floor against two spectators in December 2000?

Santiago and Osmena’s inclusion in the K-4 ticket may not be the Philippine equivalent of putting Louis XIV’s favorite courtiers in parliament after the siege of the Bastille, but it’s close.

The administration coalition has no monopoly on lack of principle, however. Fernando Poe Jr.’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino includes in its own ticket Ernesto Herrera, and has fielded Loren Legarda as its candidate for vice president. Both were prominent figures during the impeachment trial of Estrada as well as in EDSA 2, which ousted Estrada and replaced him with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Obviously their inclusion among KNP candidates—and this is particularly true of Legarda—was in violation of the mainstream opposition’s position that Estrada’s ouster was illegal and carried out by a high-level conspiracy.

There should be a difference between one and the other. The forces that put Arroyo in power put her there on the strength of their moral ascendancy, whereas the forces that would have kept Estrada in power were notably lacking in it, and argued their case solely on the basis of Estrada’s popularity.

The student and professional groups, the organized workers and Church men and women, the businessmen and urban poor at EDSA in January 2001 demanded Estrada’s ouster in the conviction that the government he had cobbled together out of an assortment of political operators, actors and comedians and not a few thugs was not only inefficient but also hopelessly corrupt.

In so arguing, they were at the same time asserting the need for a government that would be the opposite of Estrada’s. While many in that vast, ad hoc coalition had many reservations about Arroyo’s capacity and willingness to put such a government together, she did accept the EDSA mandate by, among others, promising the multitudes not only to put a good government in place, but even more importantly, to abandon traditional politics and to adhere to the politics of principle.

Good government is not possible without principled, or new, politics. This much the informed sectors of the Philippine electorate and public have found after decades of woeful experience in the hands of traditional politicians who would shake hands with the devil himself in exchange for victory at the polls.

Decades of bad government and inevitable economic and social decay have been the inevitable results of traditional politics and its putrid practice by some of the worst politicians in Asia. The Philippines’ decline from one of the most promising countries in Asia to one of its future basket cases has been primarily due to the way it has been governed.

EDSA 2—a milestone on the difficult road to the Damascus of political enlightenment Filipinos apparently have to travel to achieve good governance—was waged to change Philippine politics and the then incumbent government because both were necessary if the country was to move forward. In demanding the ouster of Estrada, the EDSA forces were therefore demanding the reform of Philippine governance and politics based on what is by now a well-established critique of both.

Since she came to power, however, Mrs. Arroyo has proven her detractors right in their fear that, as her political record as of 2001 suggested, she would remain as focused on keeping power as any other traditional politician, and perhaps worse. As a result of her obsession with winning a mandate for six more years after 2004, she has adopted policies—for example, the country’s blind rush to globalization and trade liberalization—that while politically advantageous to her have further impoverished the country and its citizens. On a broad range of issues—whether on the return of US troops to the Philippines, family planning, or the death penalty—Mrs. Arroyo has also demonstrated that same focus.

Mrs. Arroyo and her coalition’s inclusion of Santiago and Osmena in their Senate ticket, while shocking enough to the civil society groups that supported her and to such loyal devotees of People Power as Heherson Alvarez, is well within that focus. Alvarez has no choice in the matter since he led the 2000 effort in congress to file the Estrada impeachment complaint. In addition to Santiago and Osmena’s identification with the deposed president, their inclusion in the K-4 (Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan Para sa Kinabukasan—Coalition of Honesty and Experience for the Future) ticket was also at the cost of Alvarez’s exclusion from it. This decision was thus the final nail on the coffin of the People Power Coalition, dead long ago because Mrs. Arroyo killed it almost as soon as she came to power.

Although she would now bury with it the principles for which EDSA 2 was waged, and while it was not so explicitly stated, Mrs. Arroyo came to power on the strength of a covenant with EDSA forces. This is a fact neither Santiago nor Osmena can understand. Indeed Osmena, in disparaging Alvarez’s criticism of Mrs. Arroyo’s choices for senatorial candidates, has argued that “the country needs…to forget those kind of issues. Let’s forget…whether you’re pro-Marcos, anti-Marcos, pro-Estrada or Anti-Estrada.”

These issues are not of momentary significance as Osmena would like everyone to believe. They were milestones in Philippine political development. In the Marcos case the country rejected authoritarian rule, which to this day remains a constant danger through the efforts of the unrepentant disciples of repression via military dominance in government or military coups and juntas. On the other hand, Estrada’s case was a demonstration of the perils of an uninformed electorate, the need for voter education, and the constant possibility of inefficiency and corruption as the inevitable harvest of leaders elected merely on popularity.

To forget both is to forget their respective lessons, and thus risk their repetition. For one brief moment at EDSA—when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took her oath of office before them, and they heard her pledge to abandon traditional politics in favor of the new—many Filipino believed that the new government they had put in place would at least keep faith with the power of an informed electorate instead of with the power of traditional politicians, horse-trading, double-dealing and compromise. They were wrong. This could be a tragedy in the same league as the failure of the Revolution of 1896. The dimensions of that tragedy should unfold by May 10, when once again Filipinos will be called upon to make a choice between the bad and the worse.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, January 10, 2004)

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